The Books about Books of Summer

Courtesy of the individual publishers

It’s the review roundup you’ve all been waiting for: summer 2021’s books about books. Three fiction, two nonfiction, all on the recommendation of the Fine Books team.

The Personal Librarian: A Novel (Berkley, $27) by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. While the greater reading community may have been unaware, I suspect many FB&C readers know the name Belle da Costa Greene, and may even know that she was a Black woman who passed as white as she rose to prominence as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian. Here, as in real life, Belle hobnobbed with the New York elite and flexed at major auctions, all the while holding her secret close. It’s clear the novel’s two authors are enamored by Belle, but then so are we, and they get the bibliophilic details right, like Belle’s quest to secure William Caxton’s incredibly rare 1485 Le Morte D’arthur for the Morgan Library. If you’ve been awestruck by the Morgan Library, particularly the North Room, this is the novel for you.    

North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work (Hachette Books, $30) by Michael Blanding. Longtime Fine Books readers may recall Blanding, whose 2014 book, The Map Thief, was excerpted in our summer 2014 issue. In this lively narrative, he makes the acquaintance of independent scholar Dennis McCarthy, who has been applying his digital technology skills to research the Elizabethan courtier and playwright Sir Thomas North, whom he believes greatly influenced Shakespeare--he notices major themes in common with the Bard’s plays, not to mention specific language used by both. The argument is not one of those theories about who the real Shakespeare was, but rather about borrowed ideas and source material. Blanding travels with McCarthy through Italy and England, tracking North and questioning everything along the way. The result is a vibrant, thoroughly enjoyable read.  

The Lost Manuscript (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99) by Cathy Bonidan. The premise of this epistolary novel, originally published in France, is that a manuscript lost by its author three decades ago, now found, can bring people together and foster unlikely friendships. This manuscript isn’t valuable, it was merely misplaced and then forgotten, but as Anne-Lise Briard discovers, as she attempts to uncover each and every pair of hands it passed through, it still has the power to change lives. Breezy and charming, it’s a perfect bookish beach read.

The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom (Oak Knoll Press, $85) by Reid Byers. This hefty, fully illustrated, and beautifully designed volume comes to us recommended by our Nicholas Basbanes, who said of it, “The nuts and bolts of private libraries through the centuries is a worthwhile line of cultural inquiry, one that is plumbed thoroughly-and with a flair for context and narrative-by Reid Byers in this lively overview. Layout, design and accouterments of ‘domestic bookrooms,’ as he calls them, are just one component of his engaging examination, making for an excellent addition to the genre.” We couldn’t agree more.   

The Last Bookshop in London (Hanover Square Press, $16.99) by Madeline Martin. Inspired by the London bookshops that remained open during World War II, even as bombs devastated the city, this immersive and endearing novel offers equal parts war, literature, and romance. Grace Bennett is new to bookselling, having been forced to take a job at a cluttered shop whose curmudgeonly owner she must win over. She does that and much more, as the war drags on and she comes to realize how important stories can be in desperate times.          

And, of course, should you require more books about books, look to our spring or winter lists.